I recently heard a client say, ” I have never seen an employee stick around after having been through a performance improvement process.”
The challenge in many organizations is that they view discipline the wrong way. The process is filled with warnings, threats, and ultimatums, and as a result good people leave bad managers.
On the other hand, when discipline is done correctly, it can be a process that helps an employee and team be successful.
Are you building commitment or compliance through your discipline process?
Assumptions About Positive Discipline
Here are a few underlying assumptions that I believe should drive your discipline process and will help you build commitment on your team.
- Discipline can be conducted in a way that maintains a team members’ sense of self-worth. Marginalizing people is not an effective way to gain their long-term commitment in the discipline process.
- The discipline process is typically conducted when behavioral change does not result from regular feedback. Feedback is a separate process that almost always precedes discipline. There are exceptions to this rule, such as an egregious act of harassment or violating external regulations.
- Everyone has a right to know what is expected of them and what they need to do to succeed. Leaders who don’t have the courage to tell employees through both the feedback and discipline process are failing in their role as a leader.
- Discipline is a process to help people succeed and to let them know when they are not meeting your expectations.
- The same principles apply as in feedback – discipline should be behavioral based, specific, and timely.
- The team member must be involved in the process to gain commitment to behavioral change. They must have responsibility for making the change.
What assumptions underline how your organization handles discipline?
Mistakes Leaders Make
The challenge, however, is that in many organizations leaders don’t have the training to effectively negotiate the discipline process. As a result, they make the following mistakes that very rarely result in behavioral change from the team member involved.
MISTAKE 1: Surprising a team member with discipline before receiving formal feedback. This happens all too often in the workplace where the manager skips over the feedback process (note that feedback is a separate process from discipline) and goes directly to the discipline process. The manager typically issues a verbal or written “warning” and asks for the employee’s signature, all without having had the courage to provide feedback first.
MISTAKE 2: Not involving the team member in the process. All too often, the discipline process is a one-way rant from the manager to the team member. How committed would you be to change if you had no “say.” With little involvement in the process, the employee will be more likely to change organizations or managers instead of changing his or her behavior.
MISTAKE 3: Not communicating the process to the team member. Often times the disciplinary process happens and the manager fails to communicate what the process is to begin with. Even worse, the manager avoids letting the team member know that the conversation is a disciplinary conversation. It is critical that organizations and managers be transparent about the process otherwise team members won’t believe that the process is designed to help them succeed.
MISTAKE 4: Over-reliance on Human Resources (HR). The challenge in many organizations is that managers don’t take responsibility for providing feedback to the employee directly. They toss it over the wall to HR. That’s not leadership. HR should be available to provide guidance to the manager and support the proess. But, the manager has ultimate responsibility for making sure the positive discipline process happens.
MISTAKE 5: Failing to document the process. Every step of the discipline process should be documented, from the verbal counseling to the written reminder, to the Decision Day Leave process. Documentation is the first line of defense an organization has in a wrongful termination suit.
These are just a few of the common and costly mistakes managers make in the discipline process. What mistakes do you see in your organization that you would like changed?
The Discipline Continuum
Most organizations have a discipline process or policy that escalates through a series of steps. As I mentioned earlier, they are often wrought with warnings, threats, and ultimatums – none of which do much to build team member commitment.
Instead, I would recommend the following three tiers to the Discipline Continuum that put the choice of change into the employee’s hands.
Verbal counseling. This is a formal conversation between the leader and team member about a performance issue or behavioral problem. This is the first step used when feedback conversations do not achieve the desired behavioral change. Or, when a single incident is of sufficient level of seriousness to skip through feedback and right to discipline (e.g., ethics issue, harassment, compliance violations, etc.). During this conversation, the leader and team member agree on clear next steps and gain commitment to change. This verbal conversation is documented in the employee’s file.
Written reminder. If the performance issue or behavioral problem persists, we move across the discipline continuum through another formal and fully documented conversation. Notice that there are no warnings or threats. Simply a discussion about the employee’s choices, an action plan, and notification that this is the second step in the discipline process. Throughout the conversation the team leader involves the employee, as in all previous steps, to gain their commitment to change.
Decision Day Leave. Instead of issuing a final warning or placing the team member on probation, positive discipline’s final level is a one-day paid disciplinary leave. During this time out of the office, the individual reflects on making a final decision – whether to fully commit to solving the performance
issue, or to leave the organization and find more fulfilling work elsewhere. When the employee returns the following day, he and his supervisor meet to discuss his decision. If the employee decides to stay, he submits a detailed action plan, the manager provides encouragement, they both talk through specific follow-up steps, and the manager lets the employee know that if change is not created the next step in the process is dismissal.
How does the Discipline Continuum work in your organization?
Conducting the Conversation
Here is a simple 5-Step process for helping employees make commitment to change and reinforcing their ownership in the process.
Step 1 – Situation: Begin by describing the behavior you saw as specifically as possible – either a performance issue or behavioral problem.
Step 2 – Impact: Next, describe the impact of the behavior — on you, on other team members, your customers, etc. Describing the impact helps the employee understand the consequences of his behavior.
Step 3 – Input: Ask the team member for his input. For example, “What is your perspective on the issue or problem?” and “What ideas do you have to improve?” You are much more likely to gain a team member’s commitment to change by actively involving him in the process.
Step 4 – Commitment and follow-up: Summarize the discussion, agree on an action plan, and schedule a follow-up. Literally pull out your calendar and set aside time to review progress. Follow-up reinforces behavioral change and increases the likelihood of improving performance.
Step 5 – Confirm continuum: Communicate where the team member is within the discipline continuum and provide encouragement.
Remember, positive discipline is designed to help a team member be successful. There are no threats. There are no warnings. There are no ultimatums.
There is simply transparency, open communication, and ownership to change.